Real Ballet Dancers Fact-Check Flesh & Bone

Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
As a lover of ballet and depictions of dance onscreen, I've been eagerly anticipating Starz's new ballet show Flesh and Bone. When the show finally premiered last night, I was a bit disappointed. It's on a premium cable channel, so naturally I expected sex and nudity. What I didn't expect is a show that thinks it's showcasing the strong, beautiful figures of ballerinas doing what they've trained their entire lives to do, but is in reality putting their bodies on display in a way that feels gratuitous and not at all empowering.

On Flesh and Bone, the ballet world is a cold, dark, and cruel one. Female dancers are cutthroat and competitive with each other. They're even worse to their own bodies, which they mutilate, abuse, drug, and starve. Straight male dancers are lecherous, and the company's artistic director is even worse: He's not above asking the female dancers to appear sexually available to company benefactors.

The show was created by Moira Walley-Beckett, who won three Emmys for writing and producing Breaking Bad, so clearly we're in for some heightened drama. Two of the stars of Flesh and Bone, Sarah Hay (who plays Claire Robbins) and Raychel Diane Weiner (who plays Daphne), confirmed to Refinery29 last week that the show portrays an exaggerated view of the real ballet world. However, they also said that behind every character and storyline, there's a grain of truth.

"I think that bringing on actual dancers really made the whole show legitimate, because every step of the way [the creative team] asked us, 'How would you say this? Have you ever experienced this? How did you react?'" Weiner said. "They were so aware that we’ve all lived through some of it, or at least one person in [the cast] may have experienced it. I think that it is an accurate picture, and it’s great TV to show the gritty and dark side of all of it... I think it’s pretty damn accurate."

I get that a TV show needs drama. I just don't understand why Flesh and Bone producers feel the need to depict the ballet world and the personalities who inhabit it as terrifying and grim. There's no levity or happiness at all.

Some critics have embraced the show, but what I wanted to know is what professional dancers thought of its depiction of their world. So we talked to three dancers who aren't involved with the production. Here's what they had to say about Flesh and Bone's first episode.
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Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Is the cattle call audition where Claire joins the company standard?
Georgina Pazcoguin, 30, soloist, New York City Ballet: "Yes. Even on Broadway, there are cattle calls. I haven’t had the experience of auditioning for an actual company. The School of American Ballet does a whole tour, and there are a lot of people in the room, and you’re selected from that group of people."

Tabitha Rinko-Gay, 26, former New York City Ballet dancer:
"Any audition I ever took consisted of a class. No mumbling directors had us line up afterward to step forward or back [like in the episode]. The audition process shown did look exactly like what my Broadway-aspiring roommate experiences — including the crying girl."

Nicolas de la Vega, 27, currenty freelance (formerly with the Los Angeles Ballet): "I have been to a lot of auditions, but I have never experienced an audition where you have to stand in a line, and they make a cut when you haven't even danced yet. Every company runs their auditions however they want. Sometimes, they'll make a cut after two combinations at the barre, and some will wait until center combinations. I've also never had to perform a variation in an audition. As far as attire goes, not everyone is wearing the exact same thing."

Are company members usually this hostile to a new person?
GP: "Actually, if anything, it’s the guys who are a little bit more, ‘Who’s this dude coming in?’ more so than the girls in my company... Granted, the whole idea about inserting into a company is you’re at the top of your game. You’re usually [coming from] a school situation where you’re the best in the school. You’re given a contract, then you're knocked down to the bottom of the totem pole again. It’s an adjustment for these people. If you come in and you think that you’re the best thing for ballet, you’re not going to be accepted... It’s more so of a helping along and a mentoring nowadays. It used to be a lot meaner. I think now, generally, the older dancers are far more accepting and are willing to help."

TRG:
"Showing this level of unacceptance would look weak, as though the dancer were worried he or she were lacking in talent."

NDLV: "I feel this show falls into the trap of overdramatizing competitiveness within a company. Yes, there will be newcomers who turn out to be amazing talents. But for the most part, a new girl is no threat to a prima who is well established."

Have they ever heard of dancers stripping for extra cash, like Claire and Daphne do?
GP: "There's not a lot of energy left at the end of the day in a real company situation to do anything like that. People can hardly date."

TRG: "No, I think this a fantasy attached to dancers. We have the skill set to strip, I have no doubt. But it doesn't seem like an easy, stress-free side job. Most of my friends work in retail if they're not performing."

NDLV: "I've never heard of anyone stripping as a second job. Maybe go-go dancing, but not stripping."

Is there really this much sexual harassment in the ballet world?
GP: "There's always been this underlying idea. You look at the story of Degas' "Little Dancer"... You are there to be this ethereal creature, and that could always be the case... We work in close quarters; we're lifting each other up; we're touching each other... Are things said that are completely out of line? Yes. Are you occasionally grabbed in places you shouldn't be grabbed? Yes. Is it on purpose? Who knows? There's a certain desensitization to it. However, in its blatant form, everything that's on TV is so magnified... It's how you handle it as an individual. You can set those boundaries, and you should respect yourself...but then you're in a workspace where there's many different generations of people. What might have been okay in a previous generation might not be okay now... I know a colleague who unfortunately lost his job over a sexual harassment situation."

TRG: "There was so much joking around [about] it that something must have been true. I heard rumors that one might gain power by sleeping with a director or conductor, but I did not personally know anyone who did this in the dance world. It has happened to someone I know in the singing world. If I had to generalize, I found men more self-absorbed than misogynistic."

NDLV: "I have had to deal with some pretty demanding and sometimes crazy directors and choreographers, but it's never come to a point where they are telling me to sleep with a board member. Yes, some directors can really beat you down in terms of self esteem, but that is something that we all fight through on a daily basis."
Photo: Courtesy of Starz.
Is Flesh and Bone an accurate portrayal of the ballet world?
GP: "I mean, is ER an accurate portrayal of an emergency room? No!... I think they've made a valiant effort to try to bring the drama to ballet, but what we do — and what we ask of our bodies alone — is so dramatic already. You don't need to over-dramatize; you don't need to oversexualize... Flesh and Bone is a highly exaggerated form of an extreme place to work."

TRG: "There is something gritty about ballet; there just is. You strive to criticize every inch of yourself every day, and yet you hope at the end you will feel confident enough to perform onstage. You hate things about yourself. You hate looking in mirrors. I feel that it is impossible to show the true struggle of ballet onscreen; therefore, directors resort to tactics such as those used in Black Swan and in this show. Sometimes, you feel frighteningly dark inside; directors use dark themes. You hate pieces of yourself; directors separate dancers as multiple personalities. It doesn't accurately depict life as a dancer, yet something about it hits home... When I think of my dance career, I still mostly see bright lights and thrills, and the empowerment of being able to work my body that hard."

NDLV: "Ballet is intense, hard work, and can be very frustrating. But, we still have fun a lot of the time. It's not glamorous, but it's not as dark as people think it is."

What's your overall impression of Flesh and Bone?
GP: "I wish there was more insight given as to how dancers get to a company... The training starts so, so young. The strength of character, too. The sacrifices it takes — skipping your school dances and parties, balancing homework and dance — they happen so young. Ballet dancers aren't meek and mild. It would be nice to see a character that wasn't so naive... Not all dancers are completely insane. I think that format has been done enough... I would like just a little bit more depth to these characters."

TRG: "My biggest disappointment is how little dancing there was. I wanted to see ballet, and there were some great dancers involved. Perhaps that changes throughout the season, but in episode 1 the longest scene was of the stripping solo."

NDLV: "I do think it is entertaining to watch, and I'm intrigued by it. I will continue watching, although it was a little too much in one episode with the incest, cocaine, sex, and stripping all at once. This show has a lot of potential, especially because for [the] first time, the entire cast of dancers are real dancers. Their acting abilities really surprised me, and they look great!"

What kind of dance show would you want to see?
GP: "There's so much drama to what we already do that it would be great to see a comedy about dance. I don't know how it would work, but I'm willing to sit down and write it with someone!"

NDLV: "I think a drama ballet show is fine, but I do love some comedy. You'd be surprised on how funny dancers can be."
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